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Non-Review Review: What If?

“Can men and women ever really be friends?” is so familiar that it’s practically a cliché. The line that exists between platonic male-female friendship and romantic entanglement was the engine that drove When Harry Met Sally, one of the best-loved romantic comedies ever produced. What If? covers familiar ground, charting the awkward friendship that develops between a young animator in a long-term relationship and a medical school drop-out working through his own issues.

To be fair, the tension between “romantic entanglement” and “platonic friendship” is somewhat undercut by the fact that What If? positions itself as a romantic comedy. The movie plots a familiar arc, hitting the expected plot points along the way. The structure is very clearly that of a romantic comedy, right down to the somewhat contrived (and inevitable) third act obstacles. Imposing the genre constraints of the “romantic comedy” upon a film like this cannot help but suggest an obvious answer to the  driving question.

What If? works despite the familiarity. That is largely down to the charm of its two lead performers. Daniel Radcliffe and Zoe Kazan play well off one another, creating a wonderfully intimate dynamic that suggests genuine affection rather than simply superficial attraction. What If? is a light comedy, but one that is executed with sufficient charm and wit.

Why can't we be friends?

Why can’t we be friends?

There are points where it seems like What If? might become too whimsical for its own good. Throughout the film, for example, the audience is treated to Chantry’s inner self reflected through animation projected on to the side of buildings. Fairies are a recurring motif in these brief interludes, and the animated creatures occasionally express emotion – a tear forming in an excessively large eye or a smile, or even simple flight.

They aren’t presented consistently to become a core part of the film’s narrative, but they occur just frequently enough to be noticeable. It feels like this is the best way that What If? could think of to illustrate that Chantry is an animator with a particular fondness for fairy figures. References are made to Chantry being good at her job, and being reluctant to claim credit where it was due, but we never really see enough of that work to see these projected fairies as anything other than whimsical intrusions.

Movie magic...

Movie magic…

If the film wanted to make these sections work, it would need to commit to them more thoroughly. It is the kind of stylistic tic that could easily point to a unique directorial style or flavour – consider Marc Webb’s vision on (500) Days of Summer, by way of example. Alternatively, if the movie never planned to embrace these interludes, excise them from the finished film. As it stands, these moments feel a little too cutesy and distracting, as if the movie is unsure whether to commit to that level of abstraction.

Outside of these strange sequences, What If? works very well. There is a frank honesty to What If? that works surprisingly well. The film doesn’t try to disguise itself. It doesn’t try to generate any forced suspense by pretending to be something other than what is. It is quite clear where What If? is going, and it is quite clear how the story will unfold. Both the lead characters have quirky supporting casts that fill the appropriate plot niche, from sleazy male friend to untrustworthy romantic rival to inappropriate family member.

Food for thought...

Food for thought…

(Indeed, the film hues so closely to these archetypes that it glosses over any interpersonal dynamics beyond the lead two characters. At one point, members of the supporting cast commit a gross violation of trust in a horrible miscalculated romantic gesture. It’s a moment that has a profound impact on our two lead characters, but which should also affect their relationships with the supporting cast. Instead, any ripples that incident has outside our the two leads wind up glossed over and brushed aside.)

This appealing straightforwardness places a lot of pressure on Kazan and Radcliffe as leading actors. The duo find themselves carrying what is a fairly typical romantic comedy. Luckily, the pair bounce well off one another. Radcliffe is very good at playing a romantic playing a cynic, delivering wry one-liners and acerbic observations in a pithy manner. Kazan is charming and quirky without seeming like a cartoon or a fantasy figure.

Sleeping on it.

Sleeping on it.

Much of the movie relies on batter between the two leads. Radcliffe and Kazan serve the movie well. They manage to keep it light and spontaneous while still funny and engaging. Director Michael Dowse even gets a moment or two to indulge in the sort of physical comedy that made Goon such a delight – a disastrous first encounter between Wallace and Chantry’s boyfriend provides one of the best laughs of the movie.

What If? is a fairly standard romantic comedy, elevated by two wonderful central performances and great chemistry between the two leads.

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